Not the Best Chicken Adobo (but Still Pretty Good)

Not the Best Chicken Adobo (but Still Pretty Good)


Platter with chicken adobo in foreground and bowl of white rice in background

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There are two truths about chicken adobo: Every Filipino family has its own recipe (and that recipe is definitely the best), and every chicken adobo tastes better the day after it’s been cooked.

As a corollary to the first truth, I would add: Some non-Filipino families have their own recipes, too, although they’re admittedly on much shakier ground with respect to claiming theirs as the best.

Case in point: this recipe for chicken adobo, which is essentially the one my family has been cooking for about 35 years, ever since my parents cribbed it from my nanny, Erlinda, when we lived in the Philippines in the mid-1980s. It is, like all adobo recipes, salty and vinegary in almost equal measure, since the primary ingredients in most adobo recipes are soy sauce and vinegar. It’s also incredibly easy to make, and, as such, has been in my regular weekly meal rotation for as long as I can remember.

Adobo is uniquely Filipino, despite the fact that the word is Spanish and refers to dishes with some surface similarities in Mexico and Spain. But when used to refer to Filipino cuisine, it denotes both a cooking method—basically, a very acidic braise—and the class of dishes produced by that method.

As journalist and food historian Raymond Sokolov notes in his book Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats, trying to demystify why Filipino dishes with clearly Spanish names somehow stand apart from other Spanish-inflected cuisines: “For Filipino tamales, paella, and adobo, the cloak of names covers an indigenous reality.” Essentially, Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippines and described local dishes using their own language, so an acidic stewed dish came to be called “adobo,” despite the fact that the ingredients and the method were used long before the residents of the archipelago had ever even encountered Spanish people or culture.

Overhead view of knife and fork cutting into chicken thigh adobo on a plate with garlic fried rice

That my American-Japanese household ate this regularly should come as no surprise to any Filipino, or, for that matter, any expatriate who’s lived in the Philippines. As Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan write in Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes From Far and Near, popular Filipino dishes, like adobo, lumpia (often cursorily described as Filipino spring rolls), and pancit (a noodle dish—also a cursory description that does not do it justice), represent the cuisine “at its most accessible to the non-Filipino palate.”

Similarly, Nicole Ponseca writes of adobo in I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook, “Who can resist the addictively sour, salty, garlicky classic adobo, which seemed to be the friendly bridge for many to connect with Filipinos?” When my family moved to the Philippines in 1984, chicken adobo was an easy sell for my (white) American father, who, like all (white) American expats, preferred local dishes when they were made with chicken. For my Japanese mother, it was appealing because, well, soy sauce. Reductive-but-totally-accurate stereotypes aside, the dish was a hit, and it’s been in the Spaeth household repertoire ever since.

My parents’ recipe stayed pretty much the same over the years, and it was as simple as can be: Water, soy sauce, and vinegar were combined in a pot, along with some brown sugar, an enormous amount of garlic, whole black peppercorns, and several dried, dusty shards of bay leaf. Chicken legs, thighs, and wings were added to the pot, and the whole thing was simmered for about 45 minutes.

After that, everything got refrigerated for dinner the next day, when the reheated adobo would be served with a big pile of super-garlicky and slightly oily fried rice—the greasiness of the rice tempers both the salinity and the acidity of the adobo sauce.

Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve tinkered with their adobo recipe in small ways, and settled on a ratio of soy sauce to vinegar to water that my wife, my child, and I all prefer. I also ditched the brown sugar ages ago, because what I like best about adobo is its bracing, in-your-face quality, and I add more whole peppercorns, because I really enjoy chewing on them after they’ve been softened by the braise. Finally, I use fresh bay leaves instead of the dried stuff, and I always, always let it sit at least overnight in the fridge.

Given that the recipe I’ll share with you has gone through decades of small changes, and has been passed down, now, through two generations (from Erlinda to my parents, and from my parents to me), I believe this recipe is, at the very least, authentic in spirit, if not authentic in fact, seeing as it’s been devised by non-Filipino hands. I can say without reservation that it is a fine recipe for chicken adobo, although certainly not the best.

Testing Browning

Side-by-side comparison of chicken thighs adobo on a cutting board. From left to right: Browned braised chicken thigh; browned braised and broiled chicken thigh; unbrowned braised chicken thigh; unbrowned braised and broiled chicken thigh.

From left to right: browned and braised thigh; browned, braised, and broiled thigh; braised un-browned thigh; braised and broiled un-browned thigh.

This site being what it is, I couldn’t just write up the way I make chicken adobo. For one thing, I generally eyeball quantities and use my taste to guide me; for another, I make it differently almost every time, because adobo gives you options.

Some days, I’d decide to make adobo because I was butchering a chicken for its breasts—making chicken piccata, say—and I had no plans for the legs. In that case, I’d split the legs into drums and thighs and dump them, along with the wings, in a pot with all the adobo elements, then simmer everything until the chicken was cooked. This makes a fine adobo, which I will eat happily every time, but even the most novice cook would be able to point out areas for improvement.

On other days, I’d take my time with the adobo, salting the chicken in advance, browning it thoroughly, and blooming the sliced garlic, whole peppercorns, and bay leaves in the rendered chicken fat. Then I’d use the braising liquid to deglaze the fond on the bottom of the pot, add back the browned chicken, and, again, simmer it until the chicken was done.

And then there were days when, if the urge struck me, I’d take the chicken out of the braising liquid (doesn’t matter which version, the browned or the un-browned); dry it off; and slide it under a broiler until the skin was a little charred and the meat was warmed through. I’d eat the chicken just like that, or serve it with garlic fried rice and a pool of the braising liquid as a sauce.

I ended up testing all of these methods side by side. I made batches of chicken adobo in which the chicken pieces were never browned at any point. I made batches in which the garlic and spices were never bloomed in oil, and batches in which they were. I made batches in which the chicken was browned twice, both in the pot and under the broiler at the end. Based on all this, I can say with some confidence that chicken adobo any which way is delicious, and the method you choose has as much to do with personal preference as it does with how much time you have on your hands.

I do want to take a moment to highlight what I think is the best part of chicken adobo, no matter how it’s been cooked: the skin. Even if the chicken is un-browned when it goes in the pot, once it comes out, the skin is my favorite part. But I understand that many people in the US find the prospect of eating floppy braised chicken skin particularly unappealing.

If you, like me, actually like to eat chicken skin that’s easier to slurp than to chew, I can wholeheartedly recommend going with the no-browning route. If you find that unappetizing, you’ll have better success if you brown the chicken skin thoroughly first. Given that the vast majority of our readers will likely prefer it that way, I included a browning step in the attached recipe.

A braised and broiled chicken wing adobo

A broiled chicken wing adobo is a beautiful thing.

Even though I do like floppy chicken skin, I have one caveat: Chicken wings cooked using this method, despite being predominantly skin, are made 100% better by a broiling step at the end, which I don’t find to be necessarily true of other parts of the chicken.

Chicken wings adobo are almost an entirely different beast from the thighs and drums because of the way that the vinegary braising liquid transforms the collagen-rich cartilage and skin into a semisolid state. The wings, particularly the flats, are very fragile, and you have to be careful as you turn them while broiling, but the result is fall-apart-tender meat encased in semi-crispy, semisoft skin, punctuated by pops of extremely soft cartilage between your teeth.

Testing Vinegars

Three bottles of vinegar, from left to right: Heinz distilled white vinegar, Datu Puti distilled cane vinegar, Mizkan rice vinegar

As Besa and Dorotan note in Memories of Philippine Kitchens, “Vinegar defines adobo.” I believe my parents actually used Heinz distilled white vinegar for their adobo for many, many years, which means, I think, that their adobo was subpar by definition. Up until last year, I used distilled cane vinegar produced by the brand Datu Puti, which is owned by Philippine food company NutriAsia, but I stopped after reading news reports about the company’s shoddy labor practices, which inspired a sustained strike by some of the company’s workers in 2018. Since NutriAsia also owns the other major brand of distilled cane vinegar in the Philippines, Silver Swan, I decided to start using rice vinegar instead.

In developing this recipe, I tested it using a variety of vinegars: Heinz distilled white vinegar, Japanese rice vinegar (Mizkan), Bragg apple cider vinegar, and both Datu Puti and Silver Swan, tasting all of them side by side. Surprisingly, the only one I found a little odd was the batch made with apple cider vinegar; the rest tasted fine to me, although I preferred the Datu Puti and rice vinegar batches.

Besa and Dorotan observe that they know of people who use balsamic vinegar in their adobo, and others who use coconut vinegar, and still others who use fruit vinegars of a wide variety. All of which is to say, most any vinegar will do, but for the purposes of our recipe I chose rice vinegar, since it is widely available and its production is associated with no (known) labor issues.

Does Adobo Really Get Better Overnight?

The claim that adobo gets better after resting overnight is one that seems to fly in the face of previous tests we’ve done on stews. But I did my best to test the claim, comparing a freshly made batch of adobo against one that had sat overnight in the refrigerator, and I can say without reservation that the batch that sat in the fridge overnight was better. How do we reconcile that with the tests Kenji did in 2016?

The most relevant bit of Kenji’s test was how the overnight resting affected chili:

The only case in which there was a noticeable difference was with the chili, where the older batches were distinctly more rounded and mellow in flavor. This isn’t a good thing in chili, where I expect brightness and heat to stand up to the roasted flavor of the dried chilies and the richness of the thick stew.

Where Kenji saw a flaw in the acidity and brightness of the chili becoming subdued overnight, I see a boon to an extremely acidic dish like adobo. “Bright” can easily veer into “harsh” territory when vinegar is used in excess, but when the adobo sauce is cooked, cooled, and reheated, its acidity becomes more rounded and mellow in a good way, allowing the other flavors in the sauce to come through despite the vinegar’s heavy presence.

Serving Chicken Adobo

Serving chicken adobo with rice is a given, since you need something relatively bland to offset the braise’s aggressive seasoning. But the absolute best way to serve chicken adobo is with greasy and very garlicky fried rice. The oiliness of the rice is important, since it helps to provide a little balance to each bite of chicken and sauce.

Of course, garlic fried rice is an exceedingly simple preparation, consisting of only three ingredients—garlic, rice, and oil. There’s really only one way to mess it up, and that’s by burning the garlic.

You can certainly produce great garlic fried rice by tossing oil in a wok, adding a bunch of sliced garlic and letting it cook for a second, then adding cooked rice and tossing it all together. But if you really want to guard against turning your adobo side dish into an acrid mess, you can infuse the cooking oil with garlic first, strain out the perfectly cooked garlic shards, then fry the rice in garlic-infused oil.

Serving of chicken adobo with white rice on a plate, with more adobo sauce being poured over a chicken thigh with a spoon

Once the rice is completely broken up and warmed through, you can add the cooked garlic bits back to the wok, then serve the rice with a couple pieces of the chicken adobo, and plenty of sauce alongside to spoon over the top.

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